Golden Age Of Professional Wrestling 2003 (Credit:
ABC - Radio National "The Sports Factor"
- 11th July 1997
Smith: Today, it's back to the golden age of professional
wrestling in Australia; to the days when men like
Mario Milano, Spiros Arion, Brute Bernard and Larry
O'Dea were the kings of World Championship Wrestling.
Little commentary: Urrrr, what a war! What a battle!
At Festival Hall in Melbourne, Australia. And the
Golden Greek, Spiros Arion; Mark Lewin of The People's
Army; and Abdullah the Butcher, Waldo von Erich with
Big Bad John....
York: For years, I've told people the story of my
first riot, which was at Festival Hall in 1964. And
as I remembered it, it involved the Italian hero,
Dominic De Nucci who was the World Heavyweight Champion
for our region, being attacked from behind by a chap
called The Mongolian Stomper, who had a bald head
with this pointed sort of bit of hair and a long,
Fu-Manchu type moustache, and who used to stomp his
opponents into submission.
Mongolian Stomper picked up the brass bell from ringside,
and crept up behind Dominic De Nucci and laid him
out with it. And here was I, 13 years old, wondering
is this true, is it real, is it really happening?
And suddenly 7,000 Italians surging forward towards
the ring to get The Mongolian Stomper.
Larry L: It wasn't real hard in Australia back in
the early part of the 1970s when I guess I became
aware of the World Championship Wrestling program
that was on Channel 9 on the weekends; and I couldn't
say I was Robinson Crusoe in that - everyone was well
aware of that program then. Had they been doing ratings
at that time, I think they would find that that show
would have been pulling ridiculous Man Lands on the
Moon-type shares: it was probably doing a 70 share
going by the people talking about it at school and
at the office the next day and during the week.
we'll be back after this message.
World Championship Wrestling theme
Smith: Hi, I'm Amanda Smith - thanks for your company
on The Sports Factor. Today in honour of two great
wrestlers, Larry O'Dea, who died last week, and Spiros
Arion, who died earlier this year. A little later
in the program I'll be speaking with another legend
of the ring, Mario Milano, who at 62 years old is
not only very much alive, he's still wrestling. And
we'll investigate signs that the wrestling's making
Championship Wrestling was broadcast on television
from 1964 to 1978, and for thousands and thousands
of families around Australia, no Sunday lunch was
complete without tuning in to Jack Little and the
boys. In those days of black and white TV, the wrestling
was about the most colourful stuff on air. While professional
wrestling had had a strong following in Australia
since the 1920s, according to wrestling fan and researcher
Barry York, it was television that took it to new
heights as the great spectacle of good and evil:
York: Television changed professional wrestling, making
it more of a spectacle, more visual. It introduced
the gimmicks like Gorgeous George, with the flowing
robes and blond hair. And because it made it more
visual, the persona of wrestlers also became exaggerated.
So you could tell just by looking who were the bad
and who were the good wrestlers. Waldo von Erich used
to always put the fear of heaven into me, because
he was - apart from being about seven foot tall and
18 stone - he actually had this persona of a German
stormtrooper. Looking back on it, it was in terribly
bad taste, especially when they put him up against
Mark Lewin, the Jew from New York, and he'd taunt
Lewin about remembering the past, and all that. And
he had jackboots. So through television, immediately
you could identify the evil and the good, and the
promoters sure did play on prejudices - good and bad.
In the case of Waldo von Erich, it was a good thing
to have him there as a symbol of evil.
Smith: Well how has who's been constructed as the
good guy or the bad guy in Australian wrestling changed
York: The wrestling ring, in a way it represented
the wider political issues of the time. In the Cold
War period here and in America, but we'll just talk
about Australia, there was Nikita Kalmikoff from the
Soviet Union (really he was an American). And he was
a rule-breaker - of course he was 'Russian' and this
was the 1960s. And sometimes he was put up against
men like Czaya Nandor, the Hungarian Freedom Fighter,
as he was called; or the clean-up, patriotic, ex-marine
Dale Lewis, who often referred to his Korean War experience.
Smith: Well didn't another Australian wrestler, Roy
Heffernan, one of the great good guys of World Championship
Wrestling, didn't he wear a slouch hat into the ring
like he was the fair dinkum Aussie digger?
York: Yes, indeed he did, and his tag-team partner,
Al Costello - this is going back to the 1940s - they
wrestled in Canada and America as the Fabulous Kangaroos,
and they won the World Heavyweight Tag Team title.
Because over there, of course, they represented an
exotic persona. Here it somehow didn't quite work,
because I mean it's like selling slouch hats to the
Smith: Coals to Newcastle?
Smith: Well what about for particular Australian immigrant
communities - Greek, Italian, Lebanese and so on.
The professional wrestling for those groups would
have been about identifying with wrestlers like Spiros
Arion or Mario Milano or Sheik Wadi Ayoub, I guess,
wouldn't it, rather than them being exotic?
York: First of all, you've got to remember that this
was a business, an industry, to make money for the
stadiums and the promoters and for the Nine Network.
And the Italians and Greeks represented by far the
largest ethnic market, if we can call it that. So
there was the determination of heroism that was largely
economically or business motivated. But the actual
qualities of those heroic individuals, if you look
at Dominic De Nucci and Mario Milano for example,
I think you would find that they were portrayed as
clean-cut; with due respect to them, but they were
portrayed as simple folk, of humble, non-corrupt origins:
both of them would genuflect before they started a
bout, for example. And that persona was often matched
against people from cities.
Smith: Well why was wrestling in Australia so ethnically
mixed, Barry, long before Australia really recognised
itself as culturally or ethnically diverse?
York: Well it's interesting that - I mean when Australia
did start to recognise itself as ethnically diverse,
with official multiculturalism, that's when wrestling
declined. And I do think there's a link there, that
in the early period, in the early 60s, early 70s,
that was a time of non-recognition really of cultural
variety and diversity. And for the members, some members
of those mainly working-class ethnic communities,
their heroes in the ring made them feel good. It was
a way of identifying, of feeling a part of the society
they were in, as well as, of course, giving them an
outlet for venting their frustrations as newcomers
in this, what to them, was a strange land. But eventually,
through multiculturalism, when you found official
support for ethnic clubs and integration to an extent
of the Italian and Greeks into our wider society,
you find the whole thing tending to disperse. The
so-called ethnic market has choices beyond the wrestling
ring. They've SBS TV; by that stage they're home-owners,
they've worked their overtime like my Dad did, and
they've bought their house really quickly and some
are getting interested in non-Italian or non-Greek
clubs and activities as well. The wrestling becomes
Smith: Well at that period of Australian postwar migration,
the wrestling ring must have been one of the few places
where it was a definite advantage to be from a non-Anglo
York: Well I think that goes back to the 1920s, when
it all started. More so back then, that unless you
were highly educated, that most of the migrants were
working-class people who were given the worst jobs
in factories, or on roadworks, or whatever. It was
very difficult to break out of that limited range
of opportunities, but there was always the boxing
ring or the wrestling ring. I think with the wrestling
it was an advantage to be from somewhere exotic. In
1930 there was a bit match in Melbourne at the West
Melbourne Stadium between Tom Lurich, who was a Russian
migrant - he actually settled here - and George Kostanaris,
a Greek wrestler. And the local papers were quite
shocked at what happened at that bout - not in the
ring, but in the audience, because they reported that
there were a lot of Russians and Greeks in the audience,
and as they put it, 'the stadium resounded with the
exhortations of these strange foreign tongues'. So
even back then, there was definitely this ethnic aspect
to it. And for Tom Lurick, I mean what would he have
done as a Russian migrant? Where could he have been
more advantaged than as a wrestler in the ring?
CROWD Jack Little commentary: ... down on the floor
Mark Lewin screaming for him to come in, and egging
the crowd on to cheer on the People's Army. Abdullah
the Butcher now being urged on by Waldo von Erich
to get back in the ring. Now Lewin should give him
a chance to get back... WRESTLING CROWD
Smith: Now the other day, I had the great pleasure
of visiting Pino's Pizza Shop in Coburg, in Melbourne,
where I met the original Italian Stallion himself,
Mario Milano. Mario started wrestling 45 years ago:
Milano: My first start in wrestling was in South America:
Caracas, Venezuela. I was 17 years old, it's the first
time I saw wrestling there when I emigrated with my
father after the war, and that's the first time I
saw professional wrestling there, and I like it. And
some big wrestler there named Ciccliano open a school
and I started and became a wrestler.
Smith: And how did you learn the skills and the holds
Milano: Well of course, at school, and also through
the years. Because wrestling is like I guess like
any profession - sport, or any profession - if you
have the knowledge, don't need to be very, very strong.
I mean at my age now, I know I can beat a lot of much
younger and stronger than me boys, because I have
the experience, I have the knowledge.
Smith: And what's been your most famous or favourite
technique or hold?
Milano: Well my favourite hold is - of course all
wrestling fans they like, they know about that - my
Abdominal Stretch. I perfected it. My teacher taught
me, but I did something that was special, different.
If you have long legs, it's easier, and long arms,
it's easier to apply and so it has been very successful.
Smith: So tell me about the Abdominal Stretch - what
does that involve?
Milano: Well Abdominal Stretch I have to show you.
But I can tell you something: if I apply Abdominal
Stretch on somebody, he don't give up; his back, his
hip, his leg can be broken very, very easy. It's a
very, very strong hold. Very dangerous.
Smith: Well in professional wrestling, there's definite
good guys and bad guys. Were you always a good guy,
Milano: Well most of the time, yes. But see a wrestler
himself, the public create the image. For instance
when I came to Australia nobody knew Mario Milano.
Soon I went out there in Sydney, it was my first match.
I went there and everybody applauds. Either because
maybe I was Italian, my size, my looks, my who knows
what? But they are certain he's a nice guy. So I have
always been a nice guy. But somebody goes in the ring,
they maybe don't like him because he's Russian or
something, and everybody boos. They accept he's a
bad guy. Because I used to kick and punch and pull
hair, you know, like the other ones, but I always
was accepted as a good guy.
Smith: Did you ever want to be a bad guy?
Milano: Well at one stage in my life I did a little
bit of - I broke the rules and regulations because,
I needed some money quickly and they give me a good
offer, but the people still saw me as a good guy.
Smith: So it didn't work for you to be a bad guy?
Milano: No, no, it didn't.
Smith: Well yours has been a very long career in wrestling.
Have you had many injuries over that time?
Milano: Well yes, believe me, too many. But my advantage
of that was because I always think positive. Unfortunately
doctors - I'm sorry for any doctor listening to me
now, I'm sorry to say they're sometimes wrong - because
I've had a lot of injuries and many doctors quite
a few times told me, 'Mario, forget about wrestling
no more. Maybe you can walk properly or you can turn
your neck properly, but you cannot wrestle again'.
And after two months I was in the ring, because I
believe it's a lot in your mind. So the doctors tell
you it's bad, but you have a chance. But I've had
a lot of injuries, yes, quite bad ones too. But my
advantage in wrestling was I was always pretty flexible,
which helped a lot.
Smith: Well what's the secret to your longevity in
wrestling, that you've been able to wrestle for a
Milano: I think if you take care of yourself, and
do things in moderation, is the principal. Very important,
in life not just in sport, in life, because whatever
you do... Even if you have too much money it's no
good for you. I know a lot of people, I met a lot
of promoters that are multimillionaires and they're
miserable. So with moderation I think that is the
main thing. Keep yourself in shape, and work out,
and live an average life.
Smith: Mario Milano, who fans remember as anything
we really can't go any further into this program without
addressing the issue of 'faking it' in professional
Barthes, the French writer and critic, once wrote
that wrestling is 'the great spectacle of suffering,
defeat and justice'. And so, according to Barry York,
it's the spectacle of the contest that counts, not
whether it's 'for real' or not.
York: When people go to a stadium or a venue, I think
it's similar to somebody going to see a Shakespearean
performance at a theatre: you know that it's acting
and you suspend disbelief. You do that, because you're
rewarded for doing so. You have a good time, to put
it bluntly, or you experience this catharsis. You
can boo and jeer and hurl abuse at the bad guy in
the ring, but really you're yelling at your husband,
or girlfriend, or boss at work you know, and you're
getting it out of your system. So you get the reward
for suspending disbelief. It happens across all forms
of culture: cinema, opera, you name it, I mean upmarket
theatre, we all do it, we pay our money to suspend
Smith: Barry York, who's giving a public lecture next
Tuesday at the National Library in Canberra on his
favourite subject: Professional Wrestling in Australia.
Larry L is another wrestling fan, and writer for 'Piledriver',
the wrestling magazine. He's also the host and commentator
at rock'n roll wrestling events that have taken off
in a couple of inner-city night clubs in Melbourne.
And for Leaping Larry it also really doesn't matter
that the outcome is predetermined:
Larry L: It's not a big deal any more. It used to
be a big deal. I don't think the simplest child in
the audience could possibly think it was anything
other than what it is. Let alone that the heads of
two of the major American federations have both gone
to court and publicly admitted in the last few years
that it's a predetermined form of sports entertainment.
of the major American groups at the moment is doing
a thing where the major good guy comes down from the
ceiling at the end of shows on a rope, with a baseball
bat, basically dressed up as the character from the
movie, 'The Crow'. Now anyone thinking rationally
about that must realise that at this point we're not
talking about the world of pure sport, you know. But
we are talking about the world of sensational showbiz
entertainment. If you can exploit the fact that yes,
OK, this is simulated combat, sports entertainment.
But you can have a degree of athleticism in it and
you can exploit the fact that certain performers are
excellent acrobats, or have great psychology, or know
their wrestling holds and know how to work an audience
and all of that sort of thing, you can combine the
two, you can get, in theory, the best entertainment
you can possibly present. And you can guarantee it
in a way that other sport can't. So yes, it's an inherent
part of the game, if it's done properly.
Smith: But is it still a kind of pantomime expression
of wider political or cultural stereotypes?
Larry L: Like the Nazi guy and the Japanese guy were
the bad guys?
Smith: Yes. I mean they're obviously not going to
play now, so what does?
Larry L: It took the -- see, you understand that,
but it took wrestling promoters about 20 years longer
than you to work that out! But yes, eventually they
did give up the ghost. I mean when the Berlin Wall's
come down and when there's no Warsaw Pact and when
the Americans are helping the Russians out you really
can't have Russian bad guys any more. It'll play maybe
in Broken Neck, Idaho, somewhere in the backblocks,
but that wouldn't be good enough in a bigger venue.
You'd have to have a stronger, more individualistic
personality - that's the way things are going.
most interesting exploitation of that has not been
on an ethnic basis, but has been guys in the States
doing slightly cartoonised variations of known types,
from real life. Like the 'smug college jock' athlete-type.
OK, so these smug college jocks go into the real world
of pro sports and become a little arrogant, don't
care about the fans. Well if you play that up, you're
playing into a huge soft spot, an Achilles heel in
the psyche of the sports fans, who probably really
hate those types of guys: the smug, pretty-boy college
jock type. You play something like that right, you're
going to get a lot more heat from the audience than
you are pressing some outdated ethnic stereotype that
they don't care about any more.
BELL Mike Cleary commentary: ...Larry's heard the
bell so Larry O'Dea starts straight away...As he picks
up the bits and pieces belonging to Abdullah the Butcher...In
goes Abdullah, he's a cannibal as he goes in biting
at Larry O'Dea...I don't think he even understands
English, Abdullah the Butcher... FX: SCREAMS
Smith: Back at Pino's Pizza shop I also caught up
with Dominic Care, otherwise known as The Italian
Tank. The Tank is Mario Milano's tag team partner
these days, wrestling at places like the Reggio-Calabria
Club in Brunswick, in Melbourne. The Tank worked his
way into the ring by selling lollies at Festival Hall
back in the days of World Championship Wrestling:
Care: Well I always loved wrestling and I was selling
lollies at Festival Hall, you know, the drinks, carrying
the drinks and that. Then Mario opened up a school,
Mario Milano opened up a school, and saw that I wanted
to go on and he taught me how to do a bit of wrestling.
And that's how I got into it.
Smith: Is there a revival of wrestling in the wind
again now, do you think?
Care: I think so. They are coming back. And once a
month, twice a month, we are all around Australia.
But basically here in Melbourne once a month we're
at the Reggio-Calabria Club. All the relations, like
the fathers have got young kids about 17, 18 that
have never seen it before. Now the wrestling fans
of the '70s are coming to bring their kids along now.
Smith: And why do you think it's the right time for
Care: Oh look there hasn't been any wrestling now
for the last ten, twelve years here in Australia.
And you know, people, every time I walk down the street
say, 'Dominic, when are you going to start wrestling
again?' You know, and all this: 'Come on, let's start,
let's get it going'. And that's what we've been doing
and that's how we're getting all the success.
Smith: Now, what do you say to people who reckon that
pro wrestling isn't for real?
Care: Well I don't know. I'd like for them to come
and train at the gym. Unfortunately one who started
last week started training, and he's in hospital with
his leg broken in two places. And he said 'Well, I've
retired before I started'. Because he thought it was
fake too, and they all thought it was pretty easy,
and that's how they suffer the consequences.
Smith: Dominic Care, The Italian Tank.
at the monthly wrestling nights at the Reggio-Calabria
Club, Gene Gatto is the ring announcer:
Gatto: Well I knew Dominic, The Italian Tank, quite
a few years ago. And I've always been a wrestling
fan and my family were wrestling fans; and we used
to go to Festival Hall and see Mario Milano and all
the guys like Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard and all
those sort of guys. And I got to meet The Tank and
through him I actually wanted to become a wrestler,
and started training and working out with them. And
then I got to meet Jack Little and had a few chats
with Jack Little and he sort of suggested I should
take up commentary, and he'd teach me how to do it.
Smith: So what did you learn from Jack Little about
how to do commentary for wrestling?
Gatto: Well basically he really taught me that the
job of the commentator is not to describe what's happening,
because people can see that, but just to make it a
lot more entertaining for the people there. How to
handle the interviews, how to interview people, what
to say, what not to say. I mean there's been quite
a few times where Jack's said the wrong thing and
copped a smack in the mouth. I remember one time Killer
Karl Cox gave him what they call a brain buster, and
put him in hospital for a few days.
Smith: Has anyone tried to do a brain buster on you?
Gatto: Well actually I had Cyclo Negro one time, a
wrestler from Venezuela - he was the world brass knuckles
champion - one time, in Adelaide it was, he sort of
did a bit of a job on me, yes. I just sort of stepped
in the ring at the wrong time, I didn't see him. And
he was wrestling Mario Milano and Mario was out of
the way and I copped it, yes. Very painful, believe
Smith: Ring announcer Gene Gatto. And Mario and Tank
et al, are all wrestling in Adelaide next week.
at groovy, grungy inner-city night-clubs in Melbourne,
Leaping Larry L is calling the card for a different
sort of crowd:
Larry L: It's a rock 'n roll crowd; it's a crowd that
would go to rock 'n roll anyway. It's not like you
get more than 10, 20 out of a crowd of sometimes up
to or over a thousand that are hard-core wrestling
fans. These are people that go and see bands and have
probably heard from their friends from earlier rock
'n wrestling shows that you've really got to come
and see one of these: they're wild, even if it's not
your favourite band, come and see it for the combination
of the wrestling and the rock 'n roll, it's a great
night out. And the crowds grew as a result of that.
It certainly is a different night out, it's an unusual
combination of things.
rock 'n roll and wrestling go together. You see I
don't think the golf and wrestling connection or the
bridge and wrestling connection is ever going to take
off, but rock 'n roll and wrestling. And a night out
with, yes, sure, the beer and the smoke and the carpet
that your shoes stick to, it all seems to work together.
It's not maybe class, but it's exciting and it's fun.
Smith: So do you believe there is a resurgence of
interest under way for wrestling in Australia at the
Larry L: Oh I can't really say for Australia. I know
in the States and Japan it's big business again after
it went through a lull in the late '80s, early '90s.
In the States it's really big business. I mean we're
talking the two highest rated regular cable TV progamming
shows in the States are both wrestling from the two
different promotions. They run head to head on Monday
nights, and the whole business to an extent is geared
around what they do as a result, which is amazing
for something that was thought to be dead a couple
of years ago.
would say there's a tendency in general for Australian
popular culture to follow the American popular culture
on a time delay of five to ten years, so given that
it's already been going a couple of years, something
could happen. I think the interest is there, but it's
dormant, and if someone can regularly - and even the
rock 'n wrestling shows haven't been regular enough
- promote, yes, I think they'd find that they can
make a dollar of it.
"Over The Ropes"
Smith: The late, unforgettable wrestling commentator,
Jack Little, getting funky there. And timewise, we're
over the ropes now for The Sports Factor.
you'll join me, Amanda Smith, for another round next
week on Radio National. Until then, cheers.
- Steve Rackman - 25th May 2003
- Steve Rackman - 13th November 2003
- Walter Killer Kowalski - 13th November 2003
Greg "TNT" Bownds - 15th January 2004
The Great Aussie Promoters, by Greg Tingle
The Great Yankee Promoters, by Greg Tingle